Bed bugs: epidemic or media hype?

by nobugsonme on November 5, 2010 · 11 comments

in bed bug epidemic, bed bugs, bed bugs in the media, new york city, san francisco, spread of bed bugs

The most original bed bug story a journalist can tell is that bed bugs aren’t really an epidemic after all.

That was so in 2008, when Washington Post journalist David Segal wrote “Hmm. Tiny, Evil– and Everywhere?”

Still, it’s two years later and we’re ripe for a new attempted debunking of the “bed bug epidemic”; enter a new story by Matt Smith in SF Weekly claiming the bed bug scare is “bogus.”

Smith is joined by NBC San Francisco blogger Matt Baume, who follows up with the “good news about bedbugs” (thanks to Richard56 for bringing Baume’s story to our attention.)

It is true that a lot of the media’s bed bug hype is based on subjective data. I don’t put much stock in “top ten” and “top fifteen” infested city lists, because they’re based on how many cases Orkin and Terminex treated in the various cities.

Smith argues in SF Weekly that we’re getting news of the increase of bed bugs from pest control firms set to benefit from the hype, and sources like the Bed Bug Registry, which aren’t verified. That’s true to a point, but the lack of good, objective data on the incidence of bed bugs does not mean there is not a serious and increasing problem. And there is evidence that bed bugs really are spreading, and increasing in number, and really do need to be taken seriously.

While I am first to admit that media coverage does not correspond to the degree to which bed bugs are a problem in any given time and place, I did not think much of Segal’s argument or his data in the Post back in February, 2008, or in an interview he did with WNYC a few weeks later.

Unfortunately, Smith relies on Segal’s incorrect data. Smith writes of the 2008 story,

In his Post story, Segal noted that unverified bedbug reports, even sincere ones, can be unreliable; only one out of every five bedbug complaints to the New York Housing Authority actually turned up a real infestation.

This was apparently based on Segal’s claim that

In New York, the city housing authority has fielded and checked out more than 2,500 bedbug complaints in the past three years; fewer than 500 turned out to be actual infestations.

However, a “Correction to This Article” clearly posted above Segal’s story notes that

The article about bedbugs said that 500 of the 2,500 bedbug complaints lodged with the New York City Housing Authority between 2005 and 2007 turned out to be actual infestations. After taking a closer look at its records, the authority now says it did not keep detailed reports on bedbugs until last year. Of the 1,720 bedbug complaints received in 2007, a spokesman says, 70 percent resulted in treatment by an exterminator.

[Emphasis added.]

In other words, Smith relies in his current story on a statistic that the Washington Post has already admitted was not correct.

Unfortunately, NBC San Francisco blogger Matt Baume apparently picks up on Smith’s story, with the incorrect numbers, and runs with it.

Baume repeats Smith’s erroneous statistic that

In New York, around 80% of bedbug reports fail to turn up any of the bugs.

Smith and Baume need to look into their sources more carefully. According to the Post’s correction, only 30% of the NYCHA bed bug complaints in 2007 did not require bed bug treatment.

Not only is this NYCHA statistic originally given by Segal and picked up by Smith and Baume incorrect, but the NYCHA statistics are also misleading as they apply only to the city’s public housing units, and not to reports from tenants in privately-owned housing, which are handled by the NYC Housing and Preservation Department. And NYCHPD numbers of bed bug reports are much higher (HPD reports there were 6889 complaints and 2008 violations –in other words, complaints verified as bed bug cases by city inspectors — in fiscal year 2007; see Bed Bug Advisory Board Report (via Scribd), Appendix A, page 24).

While Smith notes the San Francisco Health Department’s bed bug reports (which went from 380 in 2008 to 532 in 2009) can be attributed to heightened awareness, he also admits that those numbers don’t represent all of the actual incidences of bed bugs, since “sufferers are as apt to plague a hardware store’s pesticide aisle as to report bugs to the government.”

In other words, Smith admits the official numbers in San Francisco are much underreported. That’s obviously the case here in NYC also. While the official reports recorded by NYC’s Housing and Preservation Department are consistently increasing at an alarming rate, they’re still quite low, because most people call their landlords for treatment or try to deal with the problem themselves, rather than filing a housing complaint.

The statistics we have in New York City, however, show that not only are more people filing bed bug complaints with the city than in the past, but a higher percentage of those complaints in recent years is resulting in violations (complaints confirmed by the inspectors).

The NYC Housing and Preservation Department reported that bed bug complaints went up 19.2% from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2009 (from 9213 to 10,985), whereas bed bug violations went up 42.3% (from 2871 to 4084). In New York City, heightened awareness may have led to more complaints, but a much higher percentage of those complaints were actual bed bug cases in 2009 than 2008. (See NYC’s Bed Bug Advisory Board Report (via Scribd), Appendix A, page 24).

These numbers suggest heightened awareness may be contributing to more accurate bed bug complaints, at least in NYC.

I was also perplexed by the SF Weekly article’s implication that bed bugs are an occasional occurrence in the Tenderloin:

“Going back more than eight years, you didn’t hear much about bedbug infestations,” said Antoinetta Stadlman, who lives in the Baldwin House Hotel on Sixth Street, where she says she’s the building representative for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which monitors the quality of life in SROs. “Nowadays you do hear about an infestation once in a while.”

[Emphasis added.]

People in the Tenderloin may only talk about bed bugs “once in a while,” but we understand that although bed bugs are a problem all over San Francisco, the Tenderloin has long been notorious for its bed bug problems (here are some examples from 2005, 2006, 2009).

The Tenderloin Housing Clinic and Central City SRO Collaborative have been supporting local residents with bed bugs during that entire time with housing clinics, fact sheets (such as the THC Tenant Information Sheet included in this PDF), and by working with local officials like City Supervisor Chris Daly to improve the situation for SRO residents (as in the second CCSRO report here).

It hardly sounds like a “once in a while” problem for Tenderloin SRO residents.

Smith is correct that The Bed Bug Registry isn’t vetted, and can’t be relied on to document the exact location and number of bed bug cases. However, even if there are many bogus reports, it is equally true that many (and I would guess many, many more) people don’t report their bed bug infestations to the Bed Bug Registry.

Just ask people you know who have bed bugs whether they’ve reported them to the Bed Bug Registry. I know of a number of recent cases among my friends and neighbors, none of which are listed. (You might ask why I don’t report them myself, but I think this is something the individual must choose to do themselves, for a number of reasons.)

The truth is, we don’t have good statistics on exactly how many cases of bed bugs exist or where they’re located. We’re still waiting for more cities to enact a study like Stephen W. Hwang et. al. conducted in Toronto in 2003 (which, I note, made wonderful use of pest control firms’ data on bed bug cases treated).

In NYC, data collection and tracking of infestations was among the recommendations of the city’s Bed Bug Advisory Board Report (via Scribd), released last spring (see pages 14-15).

Yes, many people do think they have bed bugs when they don’t. This is something we regularly warn people about on our forums, since it’s important not to launch into bed bug treatment without definitive evidence.

And yes, clearly there’s a media frenzy about bed bugs. Obviously, the incidence of bed bug stories in the news does not correspond directly to the level of bed bug presence in those cities. In some cases, they may be overreported, while in others, they are surely being underreported.

1 CarpathianPeasant November 5, 2010 at 7:46 pm

If there is enough agitation in the right places, there will be federal money which can go to things like that $50,000 gizmo in your previous entry.

If they don’t have any bed bugs in San Francisco, that’s fine with me — more money for Cincinnati.

2 The Reluctant Entomologist November 5, 2010 at 10:39 pm

I’ve said before that even IF this weren’t a quantitative question, it SHOULD be a QUALITATIVE one, considering what even one infestation can do to a human being.

More importantly, though, let me add this: while it is true that accurate numbers (and accurate INTERPRETATIONS of numbers) may be difficult to come by (the whole bit about there being lies, damned lies, and statistics), for anyone out there who’s hell-bent on proving there’s supposedly no epidemic, I ask, what on earth are you trying to accomplish through that argument, exactly?

No one is saying that people should lose their minds thinking they have bedbugs if they don’t, and — and no one is saying that people should be tricked into paying for treatment by any dishonest “professionals” out there who will treat even when there are no bedbugs.

But are there really people out there who wish the media would go back to sticking its heads back up its cracks about bedbugs — so we can go back to pretending they don’t exist? That we shouldn’t be looking for easier, more affordable ways to reduce the human suffering that they cause? That people shouldn’t be made aware of ways they can lessen their chances to have to go through this?

What in the world, I can only ask, in other words, is the point of what one could only accurately call a “dis-awareness campaign”?

No big deal guys! The human population of the earth may have overexploded, but the bbs haven’t quite caught up with us yet, so give ’em a fighting chance! Let’s all go back to believing it’s only slumlords and filthy freaks who get these things. As you were, everyone; keep on swapping furniture on Craigslist!

After all, if we want to get technical, I believe the word “epidemic” has a specific definition. Who cares? I’m not so sure AIDS fits the category either. But does that mean we should act as though it doesn’t exist? Stop practicing safer sex? Stop pursuing better research on it to reduce suffering?

3 DeedleBeetle November 6, 2010 at 9:30 am

Hmmm Reluctant…

dis-awareness campaign.

Who wants the masses in an uproar, making demands on the gov’t to do something more than the gov’t is willing or financially capable to do? Whose bottom line is being, and could further be, affected by a continuing and increasing public concern about the transmission of bbs? movie theatres? Broadway and off-broadway theatres? the tourism industry? hospitality and airline industry in general ?- not only in NYC but world wide? retail stores? I’m sure there are many more if we think about who benefits by a “dis-awareness campaign” — and you don’t have to be a paranoid loonie to explore that line of questioning. In fact, you have to be a Pollyanna not to consider it.

Take a look at an article about the public relations problems that bbs present to the hospitality industry. Here there is a discussion about getting in touch with the guy who handled the PR problem that were presented when lots of people were becoming sick on board cruise ships. Remember that? I haven’t heard anything on that for a while. Think there was not some public relations people on a “dis-awareness campaign” about the cruise ship problem?

There are lots more articles about the public relations problems connected with bbs and those will go a long to in explaining why we see people energetically trying to convince others that the bb problem is not so bad after all.

I get it. I’m in business. I need people to venture out of their homes to go to work (even if i don’t) If my clients and prospective clients don’t go to work then how will they pay me? I wish there were not a bb problem. I’ll be happy if we can solve it. There is absolutely nothing good (in my opinion) about it although i acknowledge that some people will make big bucks because of it. I’m thinking, for instance, of the attorneys who are bringing law suits for hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars against hotels. They’ll make out okay, i suppose, especially if they can figure out how to have virtual consultations with their clients and witnesses. Of course the chemical pesticide companies and professional pest control companies will also make out well.

So i get it. There are interests on every side. Each side has an interest and probably a really deep down belief in its position which causes it to accept the numbers that support its particular interests.

4 The Reluctant Entomologist November 6, 2010 at 10:00 am

Excellent points, Deeds!

Personally, I’m far less annoyed with the hotel industry (whose bias is at least as transparent as an XL Ziploc baggie) than the conspiracy theory rantings of seemingly bored, ordinary citizens who come off sounding like either…

… a) they think it’s as hilarious that people think bedbugs are actually a problem as it is to believe The Terrorists are plotting to blow up the shopping malls of South Dakota


…b) they PERSONALLY came up negative for bbs and can’t seem to accept anything outside their own direct experiences as having any validity or importance.

Oh, and the bedbugs themselves, of course, which can (and would love to) BITE ME!

5 nobugsonme November 6, 2010 at 11:23 pm

Hi Reluctant,

You said you’re annoyed with people who

“PERSONALLY came up negative for bbs and can’t seem to accept anything outside their own direct experiences as having any validity or importance.”

This is kind of taking the thread in a new direction, but I do want to respond.

There are lots of people who think they have bed bugs and don’t.

And when that is the case, then others pointing this out as a possibility to them are doing them a huge favor.

I have seen people hire pest control firms or purchase a homeful of DIY supplies, or otherwise firing off in twelve different directions, wasting time and money on prep and supplies, throwing out all their stuff — only to later discover they had an entirely different problem (ranging from folliculitis to fleas). It happens.

I do know how awful bed bugs can be, but I have also seen how awful it is for people to think they have them when they don’t. We see it happen.

No one on the internet can diagnose whether someone has bed bugs or not. But some people don’t, plain and simple. They need to find definitive evidence of the problem before they start to panic and before they put effort into a solution.

6 CarpathianPeasant November 7, 2010 at 9:53 am

November 5, 2010, Covington, Kentucky (Greater Cincinnati, Ohio):


I realize you are carrying on a massive job with this site, must center your interest in/on New York City where I assume you physically are and cannot scan every media report in the country; but, maybe the best thing you could do is expand those regional pages you started.

Stories like the above, which made it into print most likely because bed bugs were finally found in a reasonably likely place, the courts, will disappear from view as soon as (in this case the Enquirer) rolls over their pages. The courts are not the only local government office that has reports of them. It’s simply what was considered newsworthy.

7 Mike K. November 19, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Epidemic or media hype, we’ve had a huge surge in individuals visiting our site purchasing anything manufacturers claim to work in killing bed bugs. We have so many products we offer and don’t advertise as much for Bed Bugs, though it has become the top searched item on our site. Our call center has had more calls on that topic and “Verilux” a low cost cheap UV-C light device has sold out one of their products till Jan from the news. People need to educate themselves more on what will actually work verse perceived to work. Your info is great.

8 nobugsonme November 20, 2010 at 3:12 am

Mike K,

Your website claims the following product kills bed bugs:

Can you point us to some research data proving this?

9 EatenAlive December 29, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Now hear this. You guys can gripe and complain and ask for all the research you want, but let me make it perfectly clear that these damn bugs are a NATION WIDE EPIDEMIC and if you don’t belive me come sleep in my bed for a night. I can guarantee that you will get bitten and you will believe. If anyone out here can help then please feel free. For all those who want to bitch and say that i’m just paranoid… Once again, come stay the night in my bed. I have scars and bite marks, my children are getting bitten. These parasitic little creatures have been affecting my mental stability for seven months. If you don’t have anything helpful to say then just shut the [expletive deleted] up because you obviously don’t have them. These things are not anything worth saving or fighting for. They feed off me and my children and this epidemic is not just in peoples heads. I find these bugs climbing out of the drain in my bath tub, in my carpets, I picked one off my 4 month old son about an hour ago. I’m frustrated and desperate, how on earth do some of you people expect me to live like this for the rest of my life. NOT AN EPIDEMIC MY ASS. As far as I’m concerned 17 buildings in a 3 mile radius is epidemic enough for me.

10 nobugsonme December 30, 2010 at 8:11 am

Hi EatenAlive,

I am sorry you are dealing with bed bugs.

I’m not sure exactly who you’re addressing, since the post above and the comments below it are pretty much in agreement that bed bugs are an epidemic and not media hype.

But since you have bed bugs, I totally get where your anger is coming from.

I hope that you are able to get professional treatment to get rid of them. In many places, if you are a tenant, the landlord is responsible for treatment. Some cities will come out to inspect and enforce such laws. Please come to our active user forums if you need support or suggestions:

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